Peter Ackroyd and Metafiction. A Brief Introduction

Essay, 2015

15 Pages, Grade: 5.0


Table of Contents

1. Peter Ackroyd and Metafiction

2. Defining ‘metafiction’

3. Historiographic Metafiction

4. Tragic Hero

5. Last Testament of Oscar Wilde as Metafictious Novel

6. Wilde as Conscious Narrator


1. Peter Ackroyd and Metafiction

… as it lacks the verve, playfulness, linguistic ventriloquism and magnetism of his earlier prose, Mr. Ackroyd’s work may be viewed as a betrayal of the scintillating character and narrative skill that his journalistic and fictional output once probed. Perhaps one of the features that Ackroyd fans find it hardest to come to terms with is the lack of humour that seems to characterise his non-fiction work. Still, in the capacity for animating the subject and capturing the spirit of the ‘global river’ one discovers reassuring traits reminiscent of the resourceful biographer and his rare ability to identify with his subjects (Neagu 2008: 376).

Peter Ackroyd was born in London in 1949 and educated at St. Benedict’s School, Ealing. He graduated from Clare College, Cambridge and then won a research fellowship to study at Yale University from 1971-73. He was awarded the Whitbread Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize. Described as one of the most original 1980s British writers, Ackroyd was compared with novelists such as Salman Rushdie or Jeanette Winterson. Modestly, Ackroyd considers his output, which includes poetry, biographies, and novels simply as ‘writing’, being the result of the simple creative impulse.

2. Defining ‘metafiction’

The question arises in this place ‘What is hidden behind the term of metafiction and why does it arise so many contradictory opinions?’ According to Childs and Fowler (2006): “Critics have distinguished between Modernist self-consciousness and the Postmodernist degree of self-consciousness in the postwar period which flaunted its own conditions of artiface. Hence, the rise of such terms as metafiction, surfiction and fabulation, which purport to describe the mood of postmodernism” (Childs-Fowler 2006: 90). On the other hand, Quinn, being more specific states that metafiction is:

[f]iction that calls attention to its own fictionality. The classic example is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–67), in which the narrator berates his reader at one point for failing to pick up on a clue that he had planted in a previous chapter. A prominent feature of postmodernism, forms of metafiction appear in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962); John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1968); Donald Barthelme’s Snow White (1973); Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), and A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1989). (Quinn 2006: 257).

The term ‘metafiction’ itself seems to have originated in an essay by the American critic and self-conscious novelist William H. Gass as the author of an article What is metafiction and why are they saying such awful things about it? States (Waugh 1984: 2). Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as: a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact [sic] in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text (as quoted in Royal 2005: 138).

The new genre of experimental texts which broke with the tradition of literary realism needed some descriptive term, as Gass in his essay entitled Philosophy and the Form of Fiction pointed out. Moreover, already established terms like antinovel or antifiction could not characterize the radical narrative innovations of American writers because authors writing in such style not only violated all rules but discussed the experiments that they were conducting when creating a given piece of writing (McCaffery 1982: x). One can therefore assume that unlike any piece of fiction, metafiction is fiction about fiction, i.e. fiction which self-consciously reflects upon its own nature, its modes of production, and its intended effect on the reader.

Furthermore, Waugh in her Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction discusses the concept of metafiction through version of the Heisenbergian uncertainty principle which assumes that every process of observation creates a problem due to a fact that it is impossible to describe an objective world while the observer always changes the observed (Waugh 1984: 3). It is impossible to ‘describe’ or even ‘picture’ anything with linguistic methods. The metafictionist writer is aware that the world, as such, cannot be ‘represented’, however, what can be represented is only discourse but that too – soon becomes restrictive. Therefore metafiction is a kind of attempt to analyse and describe this difficult process that accompany the writing and presenting the world. Accordingly, Philip Roth, the American novelist, wrote:

The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents (Quoted in Bradbury 1977: 34).

Finally, Waugh points out to a very important aspect – that as far as the term ‘metafiction’ is relatively new, the practice is as old as the novel itself (Waugh 1982: 5). Indeed, such self-reflexive literary devices can be traced back in the writings of 18th-century writers like Laurence Sterne, as well as in late 20th-century narrative experiments.

Accordingly, the assumption that metafiction is a solely postmodern phenomenon is obviously not true. Still, however, while it was one of the central ideas recognizable in postmodern writings it should be explained where from and in what form it got to that literary period.

Initially, it was the postmodern rejection of the dominant narratives that seemed to relate metafiction directly to the avant-garde of the 1960s and 70s. In the beginning of the postmodernist questioning of traditional concepts of identity, reality, meaning and representation, this novelty became a medium for expressing fundamental distrust towards the old modes of comprehending the world.

Postmodernist fiction is an international phenomenon, with major representatives from all over the world, to mention but some: Gunter Grass, Mario Vargos Llosa, Milan Kundera or Stanisław Lem. Raymond Federman states in Self-Reflexive Fiction that: “it cannot be said that these writers ... formed a unified movement for which a coherent theory could be formulated” (as quoted in Sim 2001: 123). However, this literary output do have certain things in common. Some of the dominant features of their postmodernist fiction include: temporal disorder, the strange sense of time, a pointless use of pastiche, the loose association of ideas, ever-present paranoia and vicious circles, or a loss of distinction between logically separate levels of discourse.

Ronald Sukenicks provocative characterization of the post-realistic novel in The Death of the Novel and Other Stories (1969) offers some explanation to this situation as well as the ironic glimpse at the writers of the period. Like many other writers and critics of the late 1960s and the 70s, Sukenick directly relates the rise of new (meta-)fictional forms to the postmodern point of view:

Fiction constitutes a way of looking at the world. [...] Realistic fiction presupposed chronological time as the medium of a plotted narrative, an irreducible individual psyche as the subject of its characterization, and, above all, the ultimate, concrete reality of things as the object and rationale of its description. In the world of post-realism, however, all of these absolutes have become absolutely problematic. The contemporary writer the writer who is acutely in touch with the life of which he is part is forced to start from scratch: Reality doesn’t exist, time doesn’t exist, personality doesn’t exist (Sukenick 1969: 41).

It is worth recalling here an interview with Ackroyd from 1996. He was asked whether he would describe his work as ‘postmodernist’ due to the fact that he attempts at renewing English culture involving two different elements – on the one hand, recovering the visionary component of writing and, on the other, keeping to such popular art forms as vaudeville, pantomime, and the grotesque in general. Such combination of the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ is a typically postmodernist feature. Interestingly, when answering, Ackroyd put himself in a line with Dickens and Shakespeare, stating that his style, that above mentioned connection of ‘high’ and ‘low’ is nothing more but “just part of the inheritance that goes back as far as a thousand years. It’s nothing really to do with postmodernism”. (Onega 1996: 208).

Linda Hutcheon in A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction argues that postmodernist writing is best represented by those works of ‘historiographic metafiction’ which self-consciously distort history due to the fact that postmodernism itself is too much a contradictory – it builds and then demolishes any established norms (Hutcheon 1988: 285).


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Peter Ackroyd and Metafiction. A Brief Introduction
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Metafiction, Peter Ackroyd, literature, postmodernism, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde
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MA Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2015, Peter Ackroyd and Metafiction. A Brief Introduction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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